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70 Reasons We Love Stephen King
Stephen King was born on Sept. 21, 1947, and to mark the legendary author's 70th birthday, EW has compiled a list of 70 random facts about "Uncle Steve" that are cause for celebration. Let's venture into the dark, which is lit today by a lot of birthday candles ...
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By coincidence, 70-year-old King has published about 70 books. Rather than mention every title, however, we're going to hit them all here at once. We love Stephen King for every word, every page. "Books are uniquely portable magic," he once wrote. Amen.
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Read enough personal encounters with him, and you see King really is who you expect him to be. He's more funny than scary. More generous than ominous. And he exalts in all the weirdness he likes to foist on his Constant Readers. Even his Victorian house in Bangor, Maine, has bats and gargoyles in the wrought iron gates. He knows what you love, and he serves it up with a smile.
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What Scares Him?
King probably gets this question more than any other. The answer: um, you. Lots of you. "What scares me is when a whole bunch of [fans] are together. I was out one night in this area, and I hear all this god-awful shrieking," King once said. "The New Kids had been at Radio City, and, like, Donnie Wahlberg had gone out for a sandwich or something, and this mob of pubescent girls was shrieking after him.'There he is, there he goes!' I wouldn't like that kind of fame."
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Stephen King Land
King has always included little winks to his readers in the form of references to his other books, but as The Dark Tower evolved into the nexus point for all his different worlds, a type of Stephen King multiverse emerged. "It's sort of like the malevolent version of Disney World, where everything fits together," he told EW in 2012. "Let’s put it this way – if there was a Stephen King World, people would only go on the rides ... once."
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Both of King's son's picked up a love of storytelling from their father -- and their mother, novelist Tabitha King. King's daughter, Naomi, is a writer of sorts too, working as a minister in Florida. Stephen tells EW, "The house was full of books, and it was full of people who wrote stories, so they just came along."
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King & Son: Storytellers
Next week, King publishes his collaboration with son Owen -- the 700-page fantasy-thriller Sleeping Beauties, about a mystical illness that knocks the women of the world into slumber and enshrouds them in cocoons -- leaving the men of the planet to sort out the crisis peacefully (or not). Look for EW's interview with King and King on Monday.
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Sleeping Beauties isn't Stephen's first collaboration with Owen. That honor goes to this 1987 Hasbro toy. Owen was a devoted G.I. Joe fan, and he and his dad devised this villainous mindreader one day for fun. (More on that in Monday's interview.)
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He met his wife Tabitha in the library stacks at the University of Maine in 1967. She's a novelist herself, having published such books as 1981's Small World, 1988's Pearl, and 1997's Survivor.
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King has often said it was Tabitha who rescued his first novel, Carrie, from the trash. He discarded it in frustration, she urged him to keep working. His marriage philosophy: "The best thing you can do sometimes is to shut your mouth and let the other person do what they need to do. It takes a lot of acceptance to make a marriage work, and you have to keep talking. And you have to like the other person, too. That helps an awful lot."
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Give Him a Hand
As a storyteller, King has always pushed the limits. While discussing the haunted house miniseries Rose Red in 2002, King told me the restrictions of network TV weren't always a good fit. He wanted to have a character lose his fingers in a slamming door, but ABC balked. "I told them, 'Well, I'm sorry. I guess we can't do this show.'" The network gave in. When Stephen King wants to cut off fingers, censors get out of his way.
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The Bigger They Come
King is also endearingly humble. Not that he has much to be humble about. When he made the Forbes list of highest paid entertainers in 1990, he said he was grateful his $22 million, two-year income put him on the roster. But he had misgivings: "It's a national scandal. Not that I should be there, but that I should be the only writer there."
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The Dollar Babies
Frank Darabont, the director of The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist, made his first King adaptation in 1983 with The Woman in the Room, a story about a son who helps his cancer-stricken mother end her life. King liked the idea of students adapting his short fiction, so he started a program called The Dollar Babies, which is a contract that says young filmmakers can have the rights for a buck if they use the movie as a calling card and exhibit it for free but don't make a profit. If that happens, as it did with Darabont, they have to pay a percentage. "It's a way of saying to people, 'I got my chance. I want to help you get your chance,'" King told me in 2007 in a USA Today interview. "What does it hurt? But it's a pain in the ass for my assistant Marsha."
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"I Don't Consider What I Do Work"
One of the most refreshing things about King is he doesn't take himself too seriously. There's no pretentiousness here. In many ways, Stephen King is still the guy getting home from work at the laundry, a blue-collar working stiff who just happens to be one of the world's best-selling authors.
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I mean, come on. Appearing on The Colbert Report in 2009, King spoofed the ghostly twins from The Shining by appearing in the hallway beside Colbert. "Come play with us ..." (You wouldn't see Jonathan Franzen letting loose like this.)
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Speaking of The Shining (which King dislikes) we have the author to thank for this trivia about Stanley Kubrick. While in pre-production on the 1980 movie, Kubrick told King he thought the book was "optimistic." What's optimistic about a haunted hotel and a murderous alcoholic father? Kubrick's answer: If there are ghosts, that means there must be life after death. (Way to look on the bright side, Stanley.)
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In another self-mocking appearance, King once turned up at a Springfield book fair, revealing that he's now working on a biography of Benjamin Franklin. "And that key he tied to that kite? It opened the gates of Hell!" he declares. Marge is unimpressed and tells him to get back to her when he returns to horror.
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Hey, he got a Simpsons action figure out of it!
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"Oh Boy ..."
Some tributes don't even have King's involvement. In a 1990 Halloween-themed episode of Quantum Leap, Scott Bakula's time-traveler leaps into the body of a horror writer in the early 1960s. That novelist has a young assistant, "Stevie," and we learn the fictional inspirations for some of King's later best-sellers.
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Another bit of fun at King's expense? This Robot Chicken sketch (although Dean Koontz ends up paying the higher price). King doesn't voice himself and he's more of a straight man as he gets a grating visit from new neighbor "Koontzy." "It ain't quite as nice as your house. Foundation's a little creaky. But same neighborhood, right?" Koontz says. "Always room for second best, I say."
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The Twitter Feed
King's Twitter feed started out as a mix of dog pics, jokes, book and movie recommendations. Basically, he put a tap in his brain, and let the stream of consciousness flow. He has even earned praise for being "sassy."
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But over the past year, he has used this platform to speak from the heart about issues that matter. Despite the fact that there's a troll in every hole, he has given hope to millions by giving voice to what many are feeling about troubled times.
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Not everybody likes his outspokeness, though.
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The National Medal of the Arts
That's okay. Blocked by one president, honored by another. In 2014, King received the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama for his lifetime achievement in literature. (Along with the Trump block, he has now been honored by two Commanders in Chief.)
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If we're going to single out one book, it has to be this 2000 memoir, which has become as essential to aspiring authors as Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. Not only does it offer practical tips on the tools of storytelling, it tells King's own story -- a moving and inspiring one of hard work and perseverence, including his recovery from a 1999 car accident.
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A distracted driver lost control and struck King as he took a walk down a quiet country road. The author was nearly killed and sustained serious injuries, but he recovered. Afterward, he bought the van that hit him (so it wouldn't end up on eBay as a grotesque collector's item). But he also had other ideas: "I'm going to take a sledgehammer and beat it!" King told the Bridgton News in his home state.
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Writers Read, Always
From On Writing: "If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but 'didn't have time to read,' I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
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This has been a joke forever. Jon Lovitz spoofed his output (while doing the world's worst impression of King) in this 1987 sketch, timed to the debut of The Tommyknockers. While Dennis Miller interviews him, "King" never stops typing. When asked what his new book is about, he has to read the page to remember: "It's about a dog who sets fires in chemical dumps." Okay.
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Two At a Time
During a 1996 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, King made his own joke about his busy publishing schedule. While promoting his dual release of Desperation and The Regulators ("Two at a time!" Letterman declares), King walked onstage with a third book, which he claimed he wrote while waiting in the green room.
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The Book He Couldn't Write
In the same interview, King tells Letterman that as a poor college kid ("It was fried Cheerios and peanut butter for supper.") he tried to answer ads in writers magazines offering cash for quick knock-off books – like erotica. "But I couldn't do it. When I got to the twins in the birdbath, I gave up." (Letterman missed his chance to yell "Two at a time!" again.)
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To help ease the problem of flooding the market, King experimented with publishing under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman." The photo on the back of Thinner was Richard Manuel, an insurance agent for King's literary agent at the time.
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Bachman would have published a sixth book, Misery, but King's cover was blown in 1985 by a clever bookstore clerk. (King had no hard feelings, and encouraged the man to write about his detective work.)
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Number One Fan
Misery's character of obsessed fan Annie Wilkes could have been cartoonish on film, but instead, it made a star out of Kathy Bates and won her a best actress Oscar -- the first and only Academy Award for a film based on King's work.
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King has occasionally resurrected the pen name for books like The Regulators and Blaze, although he doesn't reall hide his own name anymore.
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Pseudonym Strikes Back
The untimely death of Richard Bachman inspired King to come up with an entirely new novel about the experience, with his own twisted take. In this 1989 thriller, a literary author is menaced by the supernatural manifestation of pen name he used to write violent best-sellers.
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His Only Out-Of-Print Book
There's only one Bachman book you can't find in print anymore -- the 1977 novella Rage, about a deranged teen who takes his class hostage and shoots up the school. After the rash of school shootings across America, King decided it wasn't worth potentially inspiring a twisted mind. He pulled the book himself.
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His Pull-No-Punches Essay on Gun Control
After the horrific slaughter of school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, King published this Kindle single, titled simply Guns. He revealed he is a gun owner himself, but in the essay, he advocates passionately and logically for common sense regulations to keep firearms out of the hands of would-be killers. All proceeds from the sales were donated to the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence.
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The Red Sox
King ventured into the realm of non-fiction with this book, co-written with fellow Boston baseball fanatic Stewart O'Nan. Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season is mainly the exchanges between the two authors, expressing their exuberance over the beleaguered teams long-awaited World Series victory. It is joy in paper form.
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"Do You Know Me?"
That's how this silly 1985 commercial begins, and King says it's his only major regret about his public persona. After starring in this ad, he was not just a recognizable name, but a recognizable face, and fame doesn't sit well with most introverted authors. It also has one of the most cringe-worthy lines ever written: "Instead of saying I wrote Carrie, I 'carry' the American Express card."
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King has said in interviews that he is unsettled by the "unlucky" number 13. Although he has also said he's never had a ghostly or supernatural experience, the author also harbors at least a little bit of superstition. (Fans of The Dark Tower series know he has good luck just six numerals higher, with the number 19, which turns up as a symbol of order in the universe.)
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"Hey! Ho! Let's Go!"
He wrote the liner notes for the Ramones' 2003 album We’re A Happy Family. But the author and the punk band go back much further than that ...
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"I Don't Wanna Be Buried ..."
The novel Pet Sematary includes numerous references to the Ramones, and when the movie version came out, the band repaid the favor by writing an original theme song.
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"... I Don't Want to Live My Life Again"
Years later, the Ramones song for Pet Sematary lives on. It was covered by the band Plain White Ts for the closing credits of Tim Burton's stop-motion monstrous pet movie Frankenweenie.
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The Rock Bottom Remainders
Named after books that are sold at discount after going out of print, this band's members have included King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, and many other rotating amateur musicians. They've since hung up their guitars, but who knows? Maybe a reunion is possible some day. As Barry once said: "We play music as well as Metallica writes novels."
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Let's talk about some of King's appearances in his own stories (and those of others) over the years. One of the earliest and most prominant was as the minister presiding over a housekeeper's funeral in 1989's Pet Sematary.
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The Shining Remake
Speaking of Pet Sematary, when King did a cameo in his own ABC mini-series remake of The Shining (told you he hated Kubrick's version), he played a ghostly hotel bandleader credited as "Gage Creed." That's the name of the little boy in Pet Sematary who meets a bad end -- then helps others to theirs.
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King has done many bit parts over the years, but in Creepshow, his 1982 horror-comedy collaboration with George Romero, King got to be the star for one segment, playing a huckleberry farmer who discovers a meteorite that causes him to be overgrown with plant life. Sadly, he did not receive an Oscar nomination.
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King was a huge fan of Sons of Anarchy, so the producers invited him to do a sizable guest spot. King plays a loner biker who specializes in disposing of bodies. The name of his character: Bachman, of course.
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One of the most recent onscreen appearances was just last week, on an episode of Mr. Mercedes, adapted from his 2014 book. King put vanity aside to turn up as a short order cook in a diner. In a dream sequence, the show's serial killer (played by Harry Treadaway) imagines a murder spree, and King's character is shown as a corpse serving up lunch. Doesn't look like natural causes.
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Of course, he put himself in the one movie he directed, Maximum Overdrive, playing a befuddled ATM user who gets a hostile message as all the machines of Earth come to murderous life. "Honey ... This machine just called me an a--hole!"
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His madcap fever dream (which he has admited was aided by illicit substances) was not well reviewed, but it's still crazy fun. In 2007, he told me: "I loved it myself. It's not a good movie, but a lot of things go 'bang!' What I didn't realize is you get absorbed in the mechanics of making the effects work, and it was really an effects movie. If I had it to do over again, I might have done something a little quieter."
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You can't say Steve doesn't try new things. In 2000, he published this creepy hitchhiker short story, which is credited as the first mass-market e-book. It was available for download for $2.50, and in the first day it sold 400,000 copies. On the road to digital books, this was one of the first paving stones.
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King decided to keep going with the e-book thing, publishing the first digital serial novel. This tale of a publishing house overtaken by a flesh-eating plant was sold in six segments from King's own website, and he charged a buck a pop. He says he earned $721,448 from the experiment, causing publishers to quake. But he never finished the novel.
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Charlie the Choo-Choo
He also recently toyed with children's storytelling. (Sort of.) King's third installment in The Dark Tower series, 1991's The Waste Land, features a creepy children's book that leads the young hero to a real otherworldly monorail that is powered by artificial intelligence. Last year, King wrote and published a real version of the storybook. (The story is family-friend, but the illustrations by Ned Dameron are the nightmare fuel.)
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When King really loves something, he doesn't mind joining into to write a little. In 1998, he and X-Files creator Chris Carter shared credit on a script for a stand-alone episode in which Agent Scully investigates a chilling, mayhem-inducing doll. The show is named after the plaything: "Chinga."
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Speaking of Favorite Things ...
Here are a few of Uncle Steve's faves. On his idea of eating out: "To me, my idea of what's good is to drive here and go to Waffle House, get a couple of eggs and waffle. When I see the first Waffle House, I know I'm in the South. Thats good."
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His Love of Harry Potter
The friendship between King and J.K. Rowling is a sight to see, especially when fans of both can watch their interactions on Twitter. In his review of the series for EW, he wrote: "Jo Rowling set out a sumptuous seven-course meal, carefully prepared, beautifully cooked, and lovingly served out. The kids and adults who fell in love with the series (I among them) savored every mouthful, from the appetizer (Sorcerer's Stone) to the dessert (the gorgeous epilogue of Deathly Hallows)."
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Generous to Newcomers
King is extremely supportive of other writers, especially those taking a stab at the suspense genre. Here, you see his tweets to Caroline Kepnes (totally on his own, not requested). Then he supplied a blurb for future editions of her stalker novel. King is very high up the ladder, but he is willing to reach down to others making the climb.
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Deep Blue Sea
It may not be his favorite movie of all time, but this 1999 super-smart shark thriller holds a special place for King. "My first trip out after being smacked by a van and almost killed was to the movies (Deep Blue Sea, as a matter of fact; I went in my wheelchair and loved every minute of it)," he said.
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All My Children
Stephen King is also a soap opera guy, especially All My Children: "Nothing is better than visiting Pine Valley in the early afternoon," he said. "It's been especially exciting there since Babe told Jamie that Bess (who is Babe's baby -- sort of -- it's complicated) is really Miranda, and Adam turned over the incriminating footage of Jamie to Brooke. I'm not kidding about any of this."
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Dr. Seuss' The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
King says this was his favorite book as a child, the somewhat supernatural Dr. Seuss tale of a man who literally cannot doff his cap without another, even more fabulous one, appearing in its place.
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King has said he has three heroes: Author Cormac McCarthy, director Martin Scorsese, and Red Sox baseball great David Ortiz.
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This is his favorite movie candy, and he has a unique way of consuming them. "I don't bring bootleg food into the movies, I do bring bootleg toothpicks," he wrote in EW. "Then, as I relax in my seat, I take a toothpick and poke five or six Junior Mints onto it. It ends the dreaded Chocolate Hand, and it's also kind of fun to eat candy off a stick. I call them Mint-Kebabs."
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King didn't like what he heard on mainstream radio, so he bought a few of his own stations. Now that's a side business project for the music-loving author.
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King has taken a hard line against having his name exploited. In 1992, New Line Cinema released The Lawnmower Man, starring Pierce Brosnan as a scientist who uses virtual reality to boost the brainpower of a simpleton gardener. unleashing cosmic powers in the man. They licensed King's original short story, but that tale was about a pagan god in the guise of a gardener who is on the hunt for human sacrifice . "We took 'em to court and won," King told me in 2007. "They were basically selling it as Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man, and I'm like, 'You guys can't do that!' "
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As generous as King is with new writers, he can also be blistering to best-sellers that don't measure up. In On Writing, he says reading bad prose, like "Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few, is worth a semester at a good writing school."
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King Is No Pushover
Fellow best-seller James Patterson agreed to drop an ill-conceived plan for a novel called The Murder of Stephen King. King wasn't happy, and he has had stalker issues before. "My book is a positive portrayal of a fictional character, and, spoiler alert, the main character is not actually murdered," said Patterson in a statement. "Nevertheless, I do not want to cause Stephen King or his family any discomfort. Out of respect for them, I have decided not to publish."
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Most of the time, King is collegial with other writers. He can laugh at himself, so he likes when other authors can, too. R.L. Stine is often called "Stephen King for kids," but the two writers had never met. When they finally did cross paths, King had a bone to pick. "He accused me of using every amusement park theme any writer could ever use. He accused me of using them all up, and he's probably right," Stine told EW. King was just kidding. (Maybe.)
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Just before the premiere of It, a red balloon appeared in the window of Stephen King's home. There's more to that little signal than "be afraid of clowns." You have to have fun. You can't be too serious. In a 1996 EW interview, King said: "I don't consider what I do work. It's making stories up in my head." So, basically, the lesson is ...
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Love what you do. Eat it right up! Happiest of birthdays, Stephen King. Here's to many more.